Here you will find tales of voyages past and present on our trusty Pacific Seacraft Dana 24, "Sockdolager," from Port Townsend, Washington, USA. In 2009 we sailed north from Puget Sound up the west coast of Vancouver Island to the Queen Charlotte Islands (now called Haida Gwaii.) In 2010 we went back to the west coast of Vancouver Island. In July 2011 we left the Northwest, and in March 2012 we crossed the Pacific to French Polynesia, then on to the Cooks, Niue and Tonga. We spent several months in New Zealand, and in May 2013 loaded the boat (and ourselves) on a container ship for San Francisco. In June and July 2013 we sailed north along the California, Oregon and Washington coasts, and in August we arrived home. In October 2016 Sockdolager found new owners, and we are now enjoying Raven, a unique wooden 29' powerboat. Plans are to head north. We hope you enjoy reading about our adventures as much as we enjoy having them. (And there will be more.)



Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tahiti to Bora Bora




We're in Bora Bora, nearly at the end of our visit in French Polynesia. Most of our time in FP was spent in the Marquesas.  We chose to see just one atoll in the Tuamotus (Fakarava), and felt quality over quantity was a good decision.

Finally, we sailed to the Society Islands group (Tahiti, Moorea, Raiatea, Bora Bora and more.)  Here’s where we were in Papeete harbor.


We wish we had more time to properly see the Iles Societies, but all in all, it’s been a terrific three months, which is the maximum amount of time the French allow Americans and Canadians to stay unless special, labor-intensive and very expensive arrangements for a long-stay visa are made before leaving the US.  I think it has something to do with a political fight on Capitol Hill years ago, over freedom fries. 


Although some of the street signs were a little weird (no one could tell us where to find the Culte of Silence because… it’s silent) we found the people of French Polynesia—all of them—to be polite, smiling easily and often, especially if you try to speak just a few words of their languages (French, Marquesan, Tuamotan, Tahitian.)  And who wouldn’t smile living in this lovely climate?


We finally rendezvoused with our Oregon-based friends Mark and Vickie of S/V Southern Cross, an Ericson 38, and spent an enjoyable day with them touring the island.  There are many things to do in Tahiti.  For example, you can swing on a vine.


You can drive (or hike) up the mountain to a gorgeous lookout over Papeete harbor  with Moorea in the background.  That’s Mark and Vickie with Jim.


You can visit Point Venus and see the lighthouse near the spot where Captains Cook and Bligh observed the transit of Venus.


There are some interesting ways of storing outrigger canoes there, too.


You can sunbathe on a black sand beach if you don’t mind the two-tone look afterward.


You can watch kids play near a waterfall.


And you can watch local fishermen bring in the pestilential crown-of-thorns starfish, which are both poisonous and invasive, causing great damage to reefs.  You can’t just chop them up and throw them back, or each piece could regenerate a whole animal; you have to dispose of them on land.  A recent article in the New York Times describes the perils that coral reefs around the world are facing. 


While we’re at it, here’s a shot of the damage that goats can do to an ecosystem—the fenced-in area where they live has been completely denuded of vegetation.


You can go to the market at 6:30 am to find bustling crowds.


You can talk to other cruisers—these guys own the only boat registered and berthed at Easter Island, and they were preparing to sail back there (to windward, yeeks.)


You can indulge in some Tahitian fast food; this man’s roadside drinking coconuts were tasty.


Or you can go to the Hieva Celebration, which is French Polynesia’s 130 year-old national singing and dancing competition.  When 200 tattooed, scantily clad dancers take the stage backed by a 40-member drum band with attitude, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore.  Photos weren’t allowed, but just google Hieva Tahiti images, and you’ll see what we mean.  It was a terrific way to spend an evening.  Made me want to do the hula and get tattooed.

You can also read about somber subjects, such as the 193 atomic bombs dropped over a 30-year period by the French on Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls, which does not even begin to count the horrific number of nuclear explosives dropped by the US and other nations on “remote” atolls that were actually peoples’ homes, throughout the Pacific, and about the continuing effects on marine and human health.  This is a memorial to all those places.


Mark and Vickie hauled their boat in Port Phaeton (below) a sheltered bay between Tahiti and Tahiti Iti, to be stored until they can return next year, to continue their voyage.  


We kept Sockdolager at the downtown docks in Papeete for almost two weeks. 

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

This was in part because the charms of a “big” city were irresistible, and part because of a windstorm that blew in and made us decide the docks were a better place to meet our Hawaiian friend Karen Helmeyer, who joined us for a week of sailing.


Jim nicknamed her K2.  The two Ks are best buds from an intensive course both took years ago at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  When we meet other people and they say, “You’re both named Karen?  How convenient!”  we say, “Yeah, we’re sisters who were separated at birth.”

Sockdolager was med-moored in Papeete with her bow facing the dock, and we got ashore by walking on a tightrope from the bowsprit to the dock.  The minute you step on the tightrope it sags, which for a first-timer is not a welcome surprise.  But nobody took a bath.


Although quarters were a bit tight aboard the old Sockdolager, everyone coped with good humor and downright hilarity at times.  Besides being a fellow fracturer of English, French, Spanish and other languages, Karen2 also has the enviable quality of enjoying a cast-iron constitution, which means she never gets seasick—yippee!  Here she is in big seas, wearing her Florence of Arabia hat.


Fwactured Fwench:  Language was mercilessly butchered in our linguistic laff-off.  I wouldn’t know how to begin writing the mispronunciations of some French words we tried, but Jim takes the cake for his one-phrase-fits-all approach:

Clerk at grocery store:  Bonjour!

Jim:  Bonjour! 

Clerk, handing him change:  Merci!

Jim:  Bonjour!

Clerk, staring oddly at Jim:  Au revoir!

Jim:  Bonjour!

Karen2 marched up to a young clerk at a convenience store at the fuel dock and asked him in perfect French, “Do you need a hearing aid?”  Then she turned to another man and rattled off, “I have missed my train, and do not know what to do with myself!” It pretty much stopped all conversation, since there are no trains in Tahiti and everyone heard her perfectly.  Then the giggles began.  Berlitz phrase books contain the most useful phrases for gringo travelers!   

Breakfast cereal became Amuesli; a bruised knee to which no memory of the thwack could be summoned was declared a case of Amkneesia.  Any clothing worn to keep warm in is known as Snivel Gear. 

We made a few visits to our favorite waterfront brewpub, the 3 Brasseurs, which we immediately renamed the 3 Brassieres.  At another one called the Pink Coconut, a cruising couple from Beausoleil (the cookbook authors) hailed us while we were talking with a pair of friendly sailors named Larry and Nelda at another table.  Suddenly I realized that ALL the women who were about to introduce themselves to Larry and Nelda were named Karen. 

“Hi, I’m Karen.”
“I’m Karen, too.”
“Um, my name’s also Karen.  Seriously.”
“Wait.  THREE Karens?” said Larry.   
“Yeah, we run in packs.  It’s a Karen thing.”

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

Tahitian Rulottes are something you must try if the chance ever presents itself.  In the Army, as Karen2 (a retired Colonel) told us, these rolling restaurants would be called roach coaches or maggot wagons.  Yuck!  I’m such a civilian!  But they were clean, the smells were delicious, and my appetite returned.  Every evening at six about a dozen large vans roll into a Papeete waterfront park and begin cooking.  There’s Chinese cuisine six ways to Sunday, plus crepes wagons, pizza-mobiles, and one van offers a whole roasted mammalian species (either goat or veal) spread-eagled on a rack.  You walk up to the carcass, you order the cut, and they whack off a Neanderthal-sized chunk to your plate.  Whew.  I passed on that one, culinary wuss that I am.  We 3 loved the “Hong Kong” rulotte’s excellent Chinese food, and nearly died of ecstasy sharing a Nutella crepe at another rulotte.  Nutella crepes.  It’s what’s for dessert from now on.

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

Crossing an active airport runway is always a dicey thing, but crossing it in a slow-moving sailboat is extra exciting.  The short runway at Faaa airport (pronounced Fa-AH-ahh) ends abruptly at the edge of a narrow boat channel.  Here’s how to cross it:  

“Papeete Port Authority, this is the sailing vessel Sockdolager, requesting permission to cross the runway.”  Good god, did I just ask to cross an international airport runway in a sailboat?

“Sock… Sock… vhat is your boat’s name, please?”  (Heavy French accent.)

“This is Sockdologer (I’m giving it a French spin, saying something that sounds like “SuckdoloGHEARH.”  It works.)

“Ah, SuckdoloGHEARH, yes.  You may cross now, zhere are no planes landing for zhe next few meenoots.  Please call me back vhen you have crossed zhe runway.”

“Roger, sir, we will call you when we have crossed.”  If we don’t get sucked into a 747 engine, that is…

A brief stay at the anchorage at Maeva Beach/Taina gave us the chance to see our friend Shane aboard Clover again.  Here he is, with tattoos all freshened up by a Marquesan artist. He’s heading for American Samoa.  We also got an email from Craig on Luckness, and he’s making good progress from Hawaii to Seattle.  Zulu is either enroute or probably about to leave Hawaii for Seattle, too.  Who knows when we’ll all be reunited again?

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

We especially love this photo—Shane (in dinghy) versus the mega-yachts.  Our money’s on Shane.

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

Tahitian canoers love to “backdraft” on a boat’s wake, which helps them go faster with less effort.  Karen2 declared that she was ready to propose to this hottie.

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

The sail to Moorea started out calm, but ended with us double-reefing the main and genoa.  It was one of those Whoooeee-look-at-us-go! sails.  But Moorea, oh my.  One of the most lovely places on the planet.  And can K2 take good photos, or what?

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

Okay, folks, here it is, the official Tattooed Ladies Photo:


Did we really get tattooed, or are they just temporary?  Would we really do this?  Ya think?  C’mon, let’s have your opinions.

Dancing with the Stars:  The tattooing sessions were followed immediately by a hula session, in which the dancers pulled several people from the crowd, mostly types who don’t mind making fools of themselves.  Of course both Karens got up and made foolish fast.  Witness this photo of K2 photo-bombing herself:


And, a more sedate K1 does some vague hybrid of hula and monster mash.


Mega-Yacht Surprise:  We thought our brief stay at Cook’s Bay in Moorea couldn’t get any better, but it did:  one evening we went to dinner at a waterfront restaurant where a Scottish singer-sailor-autoharp-harmonica player named Ron was getting ready to entertain with oldies and folk tunes.  At the front desk a smiling woman named Arlene handed us menus, which would make anyone think she worked there, right?  She said we’d really enjoy the food and the music, so we stayed.  We liked Arlene and Ron right away.  Turns out she doesn’t work there, but was instead visiting Moorea aboard a 178-foot sailing yacht in the harbor, named Tamsen.  It quickly became obvious that she and Ron were madly in love.  A-HA!  The plot thickens! 

But magic was in the air for everyone that night.  Ron and Arlene joined us at our table for a few minutes of delightful talk, and the next thing we knew I was on stage with Ron, belting out “Summertime” without a nanosecond of rehearsal, and loving it.   Sometimes a song just slides out of you, almost singing itself—that’s how it felt.  The audience, about 40 of the 60 people aboard Tamsen, loved it too, and I got up several more times to sing and harmonize with Ron.   When I returned to our table, Jim and Karen2 told me that Bob, the owner of Tamsen had invited us aboard for a visit the next day. 

Here’s Tamsen in daylight and all lit up at night.  Her lines are quite graceful and the high level of maintenance is obvious.  Look up her web site here.  A nice writeup in the New York Times is here.  



If you’ve been following previous posts, you know that we’ve been rather critical of the behavior of some of the mega-yachts encountered along the way.  Most have been snooty.  Some have behaved badly.  This story will prove that every assumption has an exception, and what an exception this was.  Aboard Sockdolager, the 2 Karens dolled themselves up a little; then we 3 got into our tiny dinghy and motored grandly up to Tamsen, figuring we’d need to explain to the crew that “Bob” had invited us aboard, and then we’d wait like three gnats at the waterline until they fact-checked it.  Well we were in for a surprise.  There weren’t any crew in sight, it was all family and friends.  And Bob, his son Steve, and half a dozen other family members were waiting for us, waving!  We’ve seen 200-foot motor yachts that have 17 crew waiting hand and foot on just a couple of people, but we’ve never heard of a yacht this size being run almost entirely by a happy, noisy horde of 60 family members and friends, including mobs of kids.

The first thing that astonished us was not the magnificence of the yacht but the warmth and genuine pleasure every single person aboard Tamsen expressed at our visit.  Without exception each person greeted us and wanted to know more about us.  We were made to feel as welcome as family members.  Bob and Steve, along with several other family members, led us on a tour of the ship that was great fun (and so jaw-dropping I nearly needed a head-sling.) 

Karen2, by now the Official Sockdolager Staff Photographer, took some photos, so come along and we’ll take you with us.  Let’s start at the mainmast.  That’s Bob Firestone in the gray T-shirt, and the crowd around Jim and me are his family members and friends.  Everything on the ship was custom-built in Italy, from the steel hull with its aluminum superstructure to the rigging and interior cabinetry.    Bob’s son Steve Firestone serves as Captain, and he knows every inch of the vessel because he supervised its building.

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

Here’s a clean foredeck.

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

Just behind the foredeck are boat wells for each ship’s tender, but we observed that Sockdolager could probably fit in one of these without too much trouble.

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

Here’s a dinghy being lowered into one of the wells.

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

You want rigging?  BrionToss and Gordon Neilson, this photo’s for you.  Much of the running rigging is Spectra, which is far stronger than nylon or dacron, which means you can use a smaller diameter line; still, the genoa sheets were twice as thick as Sockdolager’s anchor rode.  Steve said, “It gets pretty scary on the side deck when this sheet whips around.” 

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

To gild the lily: another rigging shot, under the main boom, which houses the furled mainsail.  The boat’s working sail area is about 6000 square feet.  The mainsail weighs more than a thousand pounds.  Everything is mechanical:  the stresses are far too big for humans to raise or trim sails by hand. 

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

Here’s the control room for mechanical propulsion.  With its windows looking over the engine room, it reminded me of a recording studio.  Or the cockpit of the space shuttle (not that I know what one looks like).  Steve knows every inch of the engine room, too.

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

Here’s Karen2 at the helm in the wheelhouse, though the helm on a ship this size is actually a joy-stick and wheels are seldom used.


Left to right on the stern deck:  Karen Helmeyer, Bob Firestone, Karen Sullivan, Jim Heumann, and Steve Firestone.  Lin and Larry Pardey, this photo is for you:  Steve asked us if we knew you and we said yes; then he told us that he and his crew aboard the schooner Vltava once towed you through the Suez Canal!  The Tamsen crew is the same group of teenagers who sailed Vltava around the world in the ‘70s, and they asked us to send you a fond hello!


We were shown through every inch the interior of the ship, too.  Here’s the busy galley, where the kitchen watch-of-the-day was preparing a meal for 60. 

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

To give you an idea of how such a boisterous crowd is organized to run a ship, which is somewhat like running a small city, below is the Dock Watch List that Steve came up with.  There are 5 watches of 10-12 people each, with duties covering everything from a 24-hour anchor watch to cooking, cleaning, manning the swim platform, and running the tenders. 

Bob said, “We’re not what you’d call sedate.  When we pull into harbor, the other mega-yachts groan, oh no, not them again!”

“Are you saying,” I asked, “that when Tamsen drops anchor, it’s ‘There goes the neighborhood’?” 

“Absolutely,” said Bob, to guffaws.


We were amazed at the level of organization.  On major ocean passages they don’t take 60 people, of course—just a few sailing-savvy friends and family, along with their half-dozen permanent, paid crew, several of whom are lifelong employees.

Although it’s a big boat, there are not enough cabins aboard to give every married couple privacy in a party of 60, so they set aside a nice dark room nicknamed, if I recall correctly, the “consummation cabin.” It’s near the laundry room, and the adults book time in it.  Seriously.  There was much hilarity as one of the women opened the door and the young couple inside dived for cover. 

“Good grief!” I said, Does this door not lock?”  Desperately trying not to look like a voyeur, I shielded my eyes and backed away, but they said, no really, you should see this cabin! 

“If you don’t lock it someone will probably open it!” was the amused consensus.  I tried to apologize to the young couple for intruding at such a tender moment, but all the laughter drowned out the attempt.  Wowzer! 

Half an hour later as we toured the enormous main saloon, Bob told us the story of how, back in the ‘70s, he got a dozen families to partner and buy a 74-foot wooden staysail schooner, called Vltava, and let their 11 teenaged children sail it around the world by themselves.  It was Bob’s idea for forging stronger bonds of trust and confidence, in kids who otherwise might have taken a different track in life, and it worked beyond all expectations.  Steve was elected captain, even though at 16 he was not the oldest.  They made a documentary movie of the unusual Eastabout, 17-month circumnavigation, called “Voyage to Understanding,” and a couple dozen of us gathered to watch it on a big screen.  The family hadn’t seen it in awhile and decided it was time to view it again.  Those kids (and now their extended families) have stuck together ever since; in fact most were aboard that day.  In storied families with names that are household words, you don’t expect such warm welcomes, but aboard Tamsen, we felt like part of the family.  Here’s the happy crew of the smallest boat in the harbor leaving, with fondness, the largest.

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

Time to get going:  We sailed to Moorea’s Oponohu Bay to swim with and feed sting rays, but the wind was so strong it stirred up a chop that would have unbalanced us—and stepping on a sting ray is a very bad idea.  Reluctantly, we abandoned the effort.  But Oponohu Bay was gorgeous.  Here’s how we always enter a harbor these days, whenever there’s a pass to negotiate.

Photo by crew of Vulcan Spirit

I’ve always wanted to take this photo:


…because of this photo, which has been an inspiration since the ‘70s:


That’s the legendary Eric Hiscock on the fordeck of Wanderer IV, with the famous Tiger Tooth overlooking Robinson’s Cove ahead.  We dropped anchor in Robinson’s Cove and had it all to ourselves. 

Speaking of photo-bombing:  I forgot to mention that as the two Karens were dinghying across Cook’s Bay back to Sockdolager after visiting the craft fair again, another one of those disgusting giant flying cockroaches flew in and landed on, OMG, my NECK.  AAAA!   AAAA!  You never heard such a shriek.  I brushed it off and it landed on Karen2.  More AAAA!  AAAA!  With both of us shrieking and making wild arm motions and zigzagging with the outboard to elude the kamikaze cockroach, which continued to buzz us, we returned wild-eyed and breathless from our death-defying escape.  Jim was, as always, nonchalant.  There was no time for a photo, but I swear the danged thing was four inches long.


Okay, time to really get going:  We left Moorea for the 140-mile sail to Bora Bora, and made it in 31 hours.  The first 24 hours were windy.  Average speed was 4.7 knots, but we surfed frequently on the big swells, reaching 8+ knots regularly and twice more than 10 knots!  Not bad for a 21-foot waterline. 


Here, Karen1 plots the course on a paper chart, as backup to our electronic navigation.

Photo by Karen Helmeyer

Here’s Jim up in the rigging again as we enter Bora Bora’s pass.  Being up high is a good thing when coming through unfamiliar coral passes—even the wide ones.


Here’s the Bora Bora Yacht Club, where we are currently staying on a mooring. 


Where to next?  The piece of ocean between French Polynesia and Tonga is about 1400 miles wide, dotted with islands that have narrow passes or no passes.  It’s a challenge because of the weather (fronts coming up from New Zealand,) and the navigation; especially for its lack of large, easy-entrance harbors.  The Pardeys and others write of being hammered in “squash zones” there, so we are working with a voyage weather forecaster in New Zealand, who emails us weather information for a fee.  Our strategy is to try and cross it in several hops, none of which is more than 450 miles long. But if a harbor cannot be entered due to weather, we will continue on.  

The original plan was to head for Rarotonga in the Southern Cooks, but instead we’ve decided to go to an atoll about 180 miles north of it, called Aitutake.  Rarotonga has supposedly just finished a major harbor dredge and reconstruction, but the rumors about space availability are so confusing that we thought let’s stay further north in perhaps better weather, and go to an atoll, albeit with a difficult entrance, but one where we can’t be crowded out by large boats because its long channel has a 6-foot controlling depth. We draw 4 feet.  Here’s a view of that long coral entrance channel at Aitutake:


After that we might sail to uninhabited Beveridge Reef, to try some snorkeling, and then, to the tiny island of Niue, of which we’ve heard so much good about.  From Niue it’s only 250 miles to Tonga’s maze of islands, which we are looking forward to exploring.  But remember, the sea is changeable and sailors must adapt, so except for the goal of reaching Tonga, there’s no guarantee we’ll stick to this crossing plan.

As always, we’ll keep you posted as best we can, via blog updates by Ham radio, or the internet when it’s available.


Just as Jim paid for the bellyflop above, I just know I'll pay for the shot below, but what the heck.


7 comments:

  1. Oh my gosh - I don't even know where to start. Love the photos as usual (especially love the re-creation of the book cover!), you look like you are having the most fun humanly possible. Plus everyone looks so healthy, happy, and gorgeous! Not to mention, what a beautiful part of the world. And my bet is that the tattoos are real - did Jim get one too?

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  2. I am in dry dock this summer and your blog is keeping me going! Thanks for the witty, wondrous ways you have with words.

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  3. Looks like another beautiful place! And Tamsen ... what a gorgeous boat! Sounds like the people aboard were very gracious and kind ... nice to hear that.

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  4. Love, love love this post. And I just told Rick that you guys inspire me in so many ways. Your open hearts lead you to meaningful encounters with all kinds of people... It's easy to discount others based on assumptions and prejudices. I strive to be open to every person I meet, like you seem to be. Cheers, the SV Nyon crew

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  5. What a wonderful journey you have undertaken! Oh, to have the courage and the strong partnership to do something similar. BTW, you may bring Shane back as a souvenir for me :-)

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  6. Great blog post! Glad you got to know the crew of Tamsen. We were docked next to them in San Diego 3 years ago and learned their fascinating story (but we never got to go aboard - darn). Hope the next stage of the voyage is just as fun for you as this one has been.

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  7. Ahoy Maties! I'm home, but still telling stories about our adventure together. Would love to sail again! Maybe I can wangle a spot on Tamsen?

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